DOCTOR, a program created in the 1960s, was one of the first and most rudimentary examples of a program processing and responding to full user language input. “Facade,” a ‘one-act interactive drama,’ stands as one of the only examples of applying that sort of language parsing algorithm to a narrative piece of media.
The game begins with an unbearably awkward answering machine message from your friend Trip, asking you to come visit him and his wife Grace at their apartment. The game then asks you to choose from a set of names, teaches you the basic controls, and then play begins. You can move around the apartment with the arrow keys, and interact with objects, as well as Trip and Grace themselves, with the mouse. Most importantly however, you can type in something to say (limited to a certain character length), and have the characters respond to it.
It was difficult to figure out what exactly the program would accept. The program draws from a limited set of voice-clip responses, so vague sentences have only minor effect on the plot, something I quickly learned as I interacted with it. Playing around with the mouse, I clicked on Trip’s cheek, which apparently registered as a kiss. He, needless to say, was slightly weirded out by that ‘Italian greeting.’
That action began a quick chain of events that led from discussing a romantic trip to Italy, to major relationship issues, to an affair being admitted to, and a quiet reconciliation taking place. I tried being courteous and as reaffirming as possible, with little to no effect on the plot. Besides the kiss, the most I ended up doing using the language parser was suggesting wine over chardonnay, something that Grace didn’t seem to appreciate. ‘George,’ my player character of choice, mostly just sat, drank, and watched the sparks fly.
Playing around with ‘Facade’ is a strangely engrossing experience. I did actually feel compelled to help out a clearly tense, troubled relationship, and I did feel obligated to comply to basic conversational norms (as tempting as abusing the parser for hilarity may be). Wrestling with the algorithm, however, also makes clear the limitations of such complicated technology, even today. DOCTOR was no psychiatrist, and this game isn’t quite the complex procedurally generated drama it set out to be.
The game did, however, recommend multiple playthroughs, so I did play one more time. In an attempt to ‘make’ the game react to me, I told Trip to ‘fuck off’, and repeatedly flirted with and kissed Grace (who enjoyed the attention), all while spouting out random vulgarities. The game actually did react to me that time. I got kicked out of the apartment, and I ended up with an utterly incoherent stage script.